Five new circuit judges are now a month into their six-year terms in the 2nd Judicial District, dealing with both the change of gears in their professional lives and the modifications in operations necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott Ellington, Skip Mooney Jr. and Chris Thyer of Jonesboro and Mary Lile Broadaway and Kimberly Boling Bibb, both of Paragould, took office Jan. 1 as circuit judges in one of the busiest judicial districts in Arkansas.
“It’s completely different,” Thyer said. “I’ve been practicing law for 25 years and handled every kind of case imaginable” as both a lawyer in private practice and serving for six years as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. “The view from behind the bench is completely different. … The law’s the same but the role is different. It’s all new.”
Ellington, who previously served as the elected prosecuting attorney for the district that comprises Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Poinsett and Mississippi counties, said because he was already familiar with operating in the six-county district according to Arkansas Supreme Court orders affecting court schedules, “it’s not been such a bad adjustment.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court in a January per curiam order banned starting any new jury trials until March because of the continued rise in COVID cases statewide. However, Ellington said one adjustment to practicing in a pandemic is readily apparent.
“When I’m on the bench and having to listen to witnesses speak through masks, you don’t get to see the expressions on the party’s face as you would without a mask. That is a noticeable difference,” he said.
Ellington also said his volume of phone calls has dramatically decreased but he has experienced a corresponding increase in the number of emails he receives that require his attention in reviewing documents and setting matters for trial.
Broadaway, previously a lawyer in general practice and a former state legislator, said, “I am so surprised at the tremendous amount of work and preparation and general knowledge” of the law that serving as a judge requires.
“I’m working a lot harder now” than as a lawyer in private practice, she said. “It requires a lot of preparation and review. I think good judges do that. I hope the job will become a little easier and it has reaffirmed what I always thought about judges and the work required to be an effective judge.”
Mooney, who has had a private law practice for a number of years, said the transition from advocate to judge is “really different.” One of the technologies to which the courts have turned, Mooney noted, is that of video conference, most often via Zoom.
“When I was practicing law, I liked being in front of somebody when I’m examining them. I was opposed to Zoom as a trial lawyer, but as a judge it’s worked out really well. It’s [conducting court sessions by Zoom] almost become standard procedure,” he said.
“I’m very surprised that we are as busy as we are in a pandemic and that we’ve been able to use technology to take care of the courts’ business with the people of the district. It’s important we all learn and embrace it,” Bibb said of technology. “The pandemic has caused us to step out and employ technology that makes us more efficient.”
While she admits it’s different not being the advocate but instead being the person hearing all the evidence and deciding the case, Bibb said she was prepared for the judgeship because of her role as an attorney ad litem for children.
“I’m definitely used to long court days and learning to listen,” she said.
Mooney, who founded the Out of the Dark Coalition that attempts to fight the growth of drug addiction among young people, said he looks forward to working with the other judges in the judicial district, particularly on addressing the overwhelming size of the circuit courts’ dockets.
“All our judges seem to get a lot of criminal cases,” he said.
With the growth in population in the area’s population, eventually we’re going to have to make some changes. “Our criminal docket is heavy,” Mooney added.
“Technology is both good and bad,” Broadaway noted. “It has changed the dynamics of the court forever. There is no reason a lawyer from Little Rock and one from Jonesboro and one from St. Louis should have to travel to Piggott for a pretrial matter when they can pop onto Zoom and conduct their business.”
Thyer said the task of docket management is one that consumes much of a judge’s time in the 2nd District.
“I spent all day wading through my criminal docket trying to get my arms around the 2,500 cases appearing there. Some are extremely old and some need just some little things done to them,” Thyer said.
Thyer, whose wife Cindy is also a judge in the 2nd District, had told him about the large number of cases filed in the six counties, “so I had an idea” of the caseload. “But the sheer volume of cases probably is what surprised me most,” he observed.
“Certainly, we had training and have been told about docket management,” Bibb said. “But hearing it and living it are two different things.”
Most of the counties have switched from manual to electronic filing, a “godsend,” according to Thyer.
Broadaway said, “We’re fortunate our society has become so tech-savvy because if this pandemic had occurred 20 years ago, our judicial system would have screeched to a halt.” While dockets are not terribly behind, Broadaway said the pandemic has really affected the criminal docket.
Though the pandemic has forced changes in the practice of law and the way the courts operate, the five new judges said ascending to the bench is a highlight of their legal careers.
Thyer perhaps summarized the new judges’ feeling best by saying, “In the brief time I’ve been on the bench, I’ve worked harder than any other job I’ve had but I’ve loved every single minute of it.”